By Andrew Todd
“Jesse’s father?!” CJ exclaimed. “His father signed away his parental rights.”
Danny nodded as he continued reading the papers. “He’s asking the court to order a DNA test to establish paternity and then to reinstate his parental rights,” Danny explained as he read. “Oh, SHIT!!”
Danny looked up his eyes wide. “Jesse’s father...”
“What about him?”
“It’s Trevor Van Edsel.”
CJ thought for a moment. “You mean the guy the kids met at the competition?”
Danny nodded. “Yeah. I thought that was strange.”
“Well, he’s an Olympian and that was a local show; there was no real reason for him to be there and then when he was doing his meet and greet, he spent most of his time with Jesse.”
“Well, Jess did win.”
Danny shook his head. “I know, but there were a lot of kids there and some really good riders and Jesse was the only one that he invited to his camp.”
“You think he came just to find Jesse?”
“Well, Jesse is a juvenile and his records are sealed in Florida, but if he knew Jesse was a rider and knew his name, it wouldn’t be too hard to keep an eye out for him to be entered in a show.”
“So, why wouldn’t he just say something?”
“I don’t know, but now it makes me suspicious about the camp,” Danny said. “If Jesse had gone back to Florida and he had finagled a DNA test then he could have tried to keep him there.” Danny stopped and thought for a minute. “Jesse told me that he sent an e-mail last night to decline the invitation--this must have been the back-up plan,” he said shaking the papers.
CJ grabbed Danny in a hug. “Babe, calm down. It’s just papers; we’re not gonna lose him, we’re his family.”
“But we’re a gay couple barely out of college and this is his father.”
“A father who signed away his parental rights and never made any attempt to contact him or know him in the last sixteen years,” CJ stated. “Look, before we do anything, I’m gonna fax these papers to my lawyer and to Doug. We’ll put his Florida people to work finding out what is going on and what our options are. That should take a few days. We aren’t going to say anything to anyone until we know exactly what’s going on. The guys are looking forward to this weekend and the Grand Opening and we are not going to spoil their weekend.”
Danny looked up at CJ his blue eyes wet with tears. “We can’t lose him,” he whispered.
“We won’t,” CJ whispered back as he kissed Danny’s forehead. “We won’t.”
Friday after school, Devon and TJ were in the art room. The art show was in three weeks and Devon was putting the final touches on his project.
TJ was doing a display of his photography that was just about finished, but Devon’s multi-medium portrait of TJ was a much larger undertaking than he had ever tried and he was spending every available moment trying to make sure it was finished.
“You almost ready to go, Dev?” TJ asked.
Devon looked between the painting he had just finished and TJ. “I guess so,” he answered. “I just need to get this put aside and get my paints put away and brushes cleaned.”
TJ walked over and picked up Devon’s brushes. “I’ll go and wash the brushes and you get everything else put away and then we can blow this pop stand.”
Devon nodded absently as TJ walked over to the sink.
When TJ came back with the cleaned brushes, Devon was still standing there looking at the painting.
“Dev…earth to Dev,” TJ laughed as he shook Devon’s shoulder.
“Wha…” Devon said as he turned and looked at TJ like he hadn’t known he was there.
“What’s wrong, Dev? It’s like you’re not even here.”
“Sorry, just trying to get this whole thing set up in my head and figure out how everything is going to be displayed. There are so many pieces of this.”
“You’re going to have that whole wall to yourself. You’ll have plenty of room and we get all day to set up. Ace said he’d help us too. It will be great. But right now, you need to get this shit put away so we can head out, ok?”
Devon grinned and nodded. “Ok.”
Devon quickly cleaned up and put his supplies away and he and TJ were soon driving to the ranch in TJ’s car.
Devon had driven in with Ace since TJ had said he would take him to the ranch after school.
When TJ pulled in to the ranch house driveway, both boys saw Ace sitting on the front steps waiting for them.
Devon and TJ got out of the car and Ace walked over to TJ and handed him something. He then turned and grinned at Devon who looked at the two curiously.
“What are you guys up to?” Devon asked suspiciously.
TJ and Ace walked over to Devon.
“Don’t you trust us?” Ace laughed.
Devon grinned. “No, not really.”
“Well,” TJ began, “I have a surprise for you for your birthday.”
“But my birthday isn’t until next week,” Devon protested.
“I know, but this present can’t wait,” TJ explained. “Ace helped me to pick it out and get it here for you.”
“I helped a little, but it was all TJ’s idea,” Ace said.
“Well, where is it?” Devon grinned as he looked all around.
“You have to put this on,” TJ said as he held up a black bandana.
“You want me to wear a headband?” Devon asked.
TJ and Ace laughed. “No, I’m going to blindfold you,” TJ replied.
TJ folded the bandana over and tied it around Devon’s head making sure his eyes were completely covered.
While TJ was taking care of Devon, Ace pulled out his cell phone and sent a quick text.
TJ took Devon by the shoulders and spun him around a few times so that Devon had no idea where he was facing.
Devon could hear people around him, but had no idea what was going on.
“So where are we going?” Devon asked.
TJ stood behind Devon and wrapped his arms around him. He rested his chin on Devon’s shoulder and whispered in Devon’s ear, “We’re not going anywhere…yet. You just need to be patient for a minute.”
TJ looked up and saw everything was in place. He whispered into Devon’s ear again, “You have made me happier in the last couple months than I have been in my whole life. You’ve made me whole. I needed to find something that told you how much I love you. It took a lot of thinking and planning and cajoling, but you are so worth it to me. I would go to hell and back to make you as happy as you’ve made me.”
TJ kissed Devon’s cheek and untied the blindfold. As he uncovered Devon’s eyes, TJ said, “Happy Birthday!!”
Devon blinked a few times as the bright sun blinded him for a moment. When he could focus he looked in front of him and saw all his friends lined up with their horses all saddled and ready to go.
He turned to TJ. “You blindfolded me for a trail ride?” he asked.
TJ shook his head. “No, I blindfolded you so you wouldn’t see her,” he said as he pointed over Devon’s shoulder.
Devon turned to his side and saw Sarge standing there holding a beautiful palomino mare. Devon stared for a moment as the realization sunk in.
“Jazz?” Devon whispered as he walked towards the horse. “Oh, my God!! Jazz!”
Jazz stepped forward nuzzling against Devon. Devon’s lips moved and nothing came out as tears fell from his eyes. Devon wrapped his arms around the mare’s neck and hugged her tight. Devon buried his face in Jazz’s mane as he cried.
Everyone watched with smiles and tears.
Devon felt a hand on his shoulder and turned to see TJ standing there tears in his eyes and a huge grin on his face. Devon grabbed TJ in the biggest hug he could manage.
“Thank you, thank you, thank you,” Devon whispered over and over.
“You’re welcome,” TJ whispered back. “I love you, Dev.”
“Oh, god, I love you, too,” Devon said. “But how?”
TJ grinned. “Ace helped. I told him what I wanted to do and he got a hold of your father who told him the name of the ranch you sold her to. I contacted the owner and she was hesitant at first, but I finally persuaded her and we arranged to have them shipped.”
TJ laughed. “Yep, a matching pair,” he said as he stepped aside and Ace led up a palomino gelding about a hand taller than Jazz. TJ took the reins from Ace. “This is Domino. I figured if we were gonna ride, I needed to get my own horse. My parents weren’t happy that I just wanted a trail horse, but we had a discussion and they finally saw things my way.”
Ace rode up on Bullet. “Ok, you two, let’s get this show on the road.”
Devon nodded and turned and sprang up on Jazz as he had done a hundred times. TJ mounted Domino and the two rode over to where everyone was waiting.
Devon, TJ and Ace rode three across and headed the line followed by Dylan and Jesse, Mattie and Spin, Zak and Dusty, CJ and Danny,and Erik and Diego. Brandon had been invited, but had to attend a family gathering that night.
They ended up at the lake, as they often did for celebrations. This time, CJ had sent some of the hands and Bridget ahead and a whole barbeque was laid out for everyone.
CJ had some picnic tables and a stone grill built. Dusty had objected since the area had always been private, but CJ insisted it would be for family gatherings only and not open to customers. He also had a small stable and fenced paddock built that was larger and more modern than had been there previously.
CJ planned to build a new lake-side picnic site farther down the lake shore that would be open for customers’ use.
Bridget had ribs, burgers and hot dogs on the grill and a table laden with salads, chips and other sides.
Devon sat on Jazz looking rather forlorn. Ace rode over to him. “What’s wrong, Dev?”
“We always do our birthdays together,” Devon objected.
Ace laughed, “This isn’t your birthday party, TJ and I just wanted to make sure you had Jazz for the trail ride tonight. This party is for everyone from CJ.”
“Right, this is our private celebration before the festivities tomorrow,” CJ said. “Tomorrow will be lots of fun, but it will also be public and for everyone who wants to come. Tonight is for us, the people who have put their hearts and souls into re-building and re-branding the ranch. So everyone enjoy, eat up; it’s probably too cold for swimming, but if you’re brave enough go ahead and try. We won’t ride back all together, but I do ask that we at least go back in two’s.”
Everyone had a fun evening eating and joking around. Everyone headed back before it was too late, as tomorrow would be a long day and it would start early.
Finally, Devon and TJ were the only ones left. They were sitting on the shore, TJ was leaning against a fallen log and Devon was leaning against TJ who had his arms wrapped around his boyfriend.
“I can’t believe you did that for me,” Devon finally said. “To find Jazz and get her back for me. That’s almost too much.”
“No, it’s not,” TJ answered. “I needed to do something that showed you how much you mean to me. I knew you regretted selling Jazz and when I told Ace he was so excited at the idea. It wasn’t easy, I had to deal with my parents, but it’s my money and in the end they couldn’t say much to stop me.”
“How did you have access to that kind of money?”
TJ laughed, “My grandparents on both sides aren’t much for shopping, so for Christmas and birthdays they just send big checks. Since my parents pay for everything the money just sits there. I never spend that much. I haven’t felt like doing much socially until we got together and most of the time we are together we are either here or at school, so other than the occasional movie or dinner out I don’t spend much.”
“But, you spent all that on me.”
“Devon, you need to understand, I would spend every dime I have, every dime my parents have--everything, if it was to make you happy. Seeing the look on your face when you saw Jazz was worth more to me than any amount of money. That was a feeling I could never buy.”
Devon turned so he was sitting across TJ’s lap and he kissed him deep.
Zak and Dusty lay in bed. Zak lay with his head resting on Dusty’s chest. Loki and Herc were sleeping on the floor at the foot of the bed.
“What’s the matter?” Zak asked not even looking up.
Dusty tensed slightly and Zak noticed.
“What makes you think something is the matter?” Dusty asked.
“Besides the fact that you tensed up when I asked that, you seem a little distant the last few days, like there is something on your mind,” Zak answered. He rolled over onto his side and looked Dusty in the eyes. “And whatever it is must really be bothering you if you haven’t mentioned it to me.”
“It’s probably nothing,” Dusty sighed. “It’s just…I think Erik has a crush on me.”
Zak chuckled and grinned at Dusty.
“Don’t laugh, Zak, I’m serious.”
“I know you are and you’re right,” Zak said. “Erik does have a crush on you--that’s been obvious to most of us since you guys started working with Rain.”
“Wait, you all knew that Erik had a crush on me and you didn’t say anything?”
“Babe, listen. Erik is really shy and still adjusting to being gay. He’s had two really bad experiences…the date he had at Christmas that ended with him being outed to his parents and then Jamie…er…Cody…you know who I mean. So if spending time with you and you working with him gives him a confidence boost then there’s nothing wrong with that. I know you’re not going to do anything with him and I guarantee you he knows you’re not going to do anything with him.”
“But, I don’t want to lead him on.”
Zak crawled up so he lay on top of Dusty and looked into his eyes. “You’re not leading him on. He’s got a little crush and a serious case of hero-worship going on. Maybe he’ll get a little hurt, but I don’t think so. I think he’s gained a lot of confidence working with you and volunteering at the rescue will give him more. Maybe he’ll find himself someone to crush on who isn’t taken.”
“So you’re not mad or jealous?”
Zak pushed himself up so that his face hovered above Dusty’s. He leaned down and brought their lips together. Zak’s tongue entered Dusty’s mouth and savored the minty taste of Dusty’s toothpaste. After kissing for several minutes, Zak pulled back and grinned at Dusty.
“Do I seem jealous?” he laughed.
Dusty grinned up at Zak. “No, but sometimes I wonder if I did the right thing, letting Erik help me.”
“It was definitely the best thing. Look at how well he’s done, how much confidence he has. Sure, he’s got some hero-worship going and he really wants to impress you--is that a bad thing? You’re his ‘teacher’, it’s good for him to want to make you proud of him. And Rain loves him, so he was the perfect choice to help you. Everything you’ve taught him is going to help him so much at the rescue and the confidence you’ve given him will help him out in the real world too.”
“Maybe you can work on finding him a boyfriend.”
Zak laughed, “Well, the first day after Christmas break, I was planning to introduce him to Devon, but then Dev met TJ. Erik and Steph seem to have hit it off, but I’m not sure if he and Luka would get along as well. Luka’s wound kinda tight.”
It was Dusty’s turn to laugh. “Kinda?!?! That boy needs to learn to relax. He’s been driving all the hands crazy with his lists for Winston and his ‘needs’. I don’t know how things are gonna go for him when he starts lessons with Danny.”
“He may find he’s met his match, cuz ‘Danny the Trainer’ is a lot more intense than Danny, my brother,” Zak said. “He’s all business in the arena and he doesn’t cut us any slack. If Luka listens and learns, he’ll do great, if he’s a know-it-all, it’s gonna be a disaster.”
“Well, Danny does seem to have him star-struck, so he may not get as wound up with him.”
“For his sake, I hope that’s the case.”
Mattie was curled up on the living room couch. He had the volume on the television turned down low and he was flipping through channels not really paying any attention to what was showing.
He jumped when he heard a noise and looked over and saw Dylan standing in the doorway.
“Shit, Dyl,” Mattie whispered. “You scared the hell out of me.”
“What are you doing down here?”
“I couldn’t sleep and I didn’t want to wake Spin,” Mattie explained.
Dylan sat down on the couch next to Mattie. “Nightmares?” he asked.
Mattie looked at him and nodded. “You, too?”
“A little when we first got back, but not so bad now.”
“I don’t get it; I’ve never had a reaction to anything like this.”
“Matt, you’ve never been through anything like this. Those guys drugged us and were going to kill us and they were working for your uncle. That’s a lot to process.”
“How did you get through it?”
“Experience,” Dylan answered quietly.
“Oh, God. I’m sorry Dyl, I wasn’t even thinking,” Mattie said.
“It’s ok, Mattie. I still have my panic attacks and I had some nightmares after the kidnapping, but remember, I’m on meds, too, so that helps. Maybe it would help you to talk to someone.”
“Well, I’ve talked to CJ and I’ve talked to Spin.”
“Mattie, I love Spin, but he’s not exactly the best resource in this case. As much as he and CJ and all of us love you and will support you, talking to a professional could really help you.”
“You mean like a shrink?”
Dylan laughed. “A psychiatrist or a psychologist or just a therapist--any of those. They’ll listen and help you work through things. I still see mine at least once a month.”
“But you seem fine now.”
“Most of the time I am and since Cody got thrown in jail I’ve been even better, but talking to someone helps me to figure things out and get through some things.”
“You can’t talk to Jesse?”
“It’s not the same thing,” Dylan explained. “I talk to Jesse about everything, we don’t have any secrets. But when it comes to my problems, he’s biased towards me and a therapist isn’t; she will call you out if you’re wrong, where Jesse will defend me even if it’s the wrong thing to do.”
“I don’t know, Dylan,” Mattie hesitated. “I’m not sure I could do it.”
“Give it a try; it’s just like talking to a friend.”
Mattie thought for a few minutes. “Would it be possible to see the same person you see?”
Dylan nodded. “Sure.”
“Would you go with me?”
“I’ll tell you what; I have an appointment on Wednesday after school. I’ll call her tomorrow and see if we can both come in. I haven’t seen her since we got back, so it might help both of us to talk through it together. Then if you want to talk alone or meet with her later, you can still do that.”
“Ok, that sounds good.” Mattie smiled. He leaned forward and hugged Dylan. “Thanks, Dyl.”
Diego, as had become his custom, woke early and headed right out to the barn. He had taken on feeding and cleaning duties in the private barn since he was the only one who did not go to school.
CJ and Sarge had both told him it was not necessary, but it was comforting to him to have some responsibilities at the ranch, so they had given him their blessing.
As he entered the barn, he saw a light on.
“Brandon?” he called with a laugh.
Brandon stuck his head out a stall and grinned at Diego.
“What are you doing here this early, my friend?” Diego asked.
“Well, it’s Saturday, so I thought I’d get an early start and there’s lots going on today.”
“Yes, there is. I’m not sure what CJ wants us to do for the events going on today, but let’s get the barn done and that will be one thing out of the way.”
“Do we need to do anything special?”
“Not in here, this barn is private,” Diego answered. “Nothing in the compound can be accessed by visitors today.”
Brandon looked at Diego curiously. “Well, aren’t I a visitor?”
Diego laughed and shook his head. “No, my friend, as soon as Sarge took you on, you became ‘family’ as CJ and Danny see it. You are one of us.”
Brandon’s face lit up. “Really?! I’m family?!”
Diego grinned. “From what I’m starting to see, CJ and Danny and the rest of the boys think of everyone here as family. It seems you and I are both considered family.”
“Well, CJ and Danny are your parents aren’t they?”
“Legally, they are my guardians. I don’t believe they would be considered foster parents like they are with Jesse, but they treat me as if I have been here all my life.”
“Do you miss Spain?”
A sad look crossed Diego’s face. “Yes, sometimes I do. It has only been a week that I have been here and my coming here happened very quickly, so I didn’t have a lot of time to think about it. The boys have kept me busy so that I do not dwell on the past and you my friend have given me a purpose here.”
“I have?” Brandon asked.
“Oh, yes,” Diego nodded, with a smile. “Teaching you horsemanship has been a great pleasure for me and seeing your eagerness to learn has been exciting.”
“Well, I’m glad you wanted to teach me,” Brandon said happily. “You’re teaching me stuff I had never even thought about. I thought I was just gonna get on a horse and go. I never knew there was so much involved.”
“When we met, you told me you wanted to own a horse of your own. Everything I am teaching you will make you a great horseman and with these skills, your horse will be your companion and friend forever. What many people want to learn is simply to ride, how to get on and stay on; what you are learning is so much more than that.”
“I know. I was telling my dad about all the stuff you’ve been teaching me and I think he was impressed that you were going into that much detail, but I told him you were doing it for me, that it wasn’t what a student would normally learn.” Brandon grinned. “He told me I should be grateful that you were taking the time to teach me all this and I told him that I was way more than grateful.”
“Well, then we both have reasons to be grateful.”
“What are you grateful for?”
“That I have such a bright and willing student.” Diego smiled as Brandon beamed at the compliment.
Mattie, Dylan, Jesse and Spin all stumbled into the kitchen bleary-eyed and barely awake.
“Good morning!” Diego greeted them from the table where he and Brandon were already having breakfast.
“When are you going to be on U.S. time?” Spin whined. “I can’t believe you guys get up this early on your own.”
“Actually, we have both been up for quite a while,” Diego said. “We have already fed the horses in the private barn and cleaned the stalls.”
“Diego, if you guys keep this up, you’re gonna make me and Jesse look bad.” Mattie grinned.
“What about Spin and Dylan?” Diego asked.
“Well, Dylan doesn’t live here and Spin…is Spin…he doesn’t need any help looking bad,” Jesse answered with a laugh.
Spin flipped Jesse off and plopped down in a chair at the table.
Bridget came in to see what the boys wanted for breakfast. As the new arrivals were waiting for breakfast, Zak, Dusty, CJ and Danny came downstairs.
When everyone else was just starting their breakfast, Diego and Brandon were bringing their dishes to Bridget.
“Is there anything that needs to be done before the festivities?” Diego asked.
“Well, everything is supposed to start at noon with the re-dedication,” CJ answered. “If you guys want to show off your horses this afternoon, I would suggest spending the morning washing and grooming and checking to see if the tack needs to be cleaned.”
“We are not allowing customers to ride our personal horses are we?” Diego asked.
“No, Diego,” Danny laughed. “Don’t worry, no one will ever ride Domingo unless you are there or you give permission. But our personal horses are a good tool to show what kind of training and riding we do here. Since I’m going to be a full-time trainer, having Zak, Spin, Jesse and Dylan showing off Angel, Revanche, Val and Dodger shows what we can do and what we can offer. Dusty showing off Phoenix and Rain shows his skills as a trainer. If you want to do a demonstration with Domingo, I’m sure you could pick up some students.”
“I am not sure that I would be a good trainer.”
“What do you mean?” Brandon interjected. “You’re a great trainer. Look at all you’ve taught me in a week.”
“Yes, but you have not even been on Domingo yet.” Diego countered. “How do I know I will be able to teach people to ride?”
“Diego, part of being a good teacher or instructor is being good at what you’re teaching,” Danny explained. “You are an excellent rider and you have such love and passion for the horses and you are definitely passing that on to Brandon.”
Brandon nodded emphatically, but Diego still had a look of apprehension.
“Diego, you don’t have to teach if you don’t want to,” CJ said. “But, don’t sell yourself short. Everyone has a different style and different types of students they are good with. Spin is great with younger riders; he takes on a lot of beginners because he can put things in a way they understand and if they are thinking of trying something stupid, odds are he’s already done it.” Everyone but Spin laughed. “Mattie is good with more experienced western riders. He’s not so good teaching English, because he doesn’t have the passion for it that Spin and Danny have. Danny’s been in competitions all his life so he is perfect to teach people who want to compete; he knows how to win and he’s great at relaying that to his students. You have a passion for horses and you’re not looking to make people good riders but great horsemen. There is definitely a place for that here. I could see you taking on a few students, but I’d really like to see you work with Dusty at the rescue.”
“Really?” Diego asked.
“Yeah, you’re good with people and a lot of our volunteers are going to be young people and people with little or no experience with horses; if you can teach them the way you are teaching Brandon that would be great. Don’t even look at it as ‘teaching’, look at is as sharing your passion and helping the horses.”
Diego smiled. “I think I would like that,” he said. “If Dusty would like my help.”
Dusty nodded. “Actually, it would be great. CJ’s right about you being good with people and horses. And since you’re not going to school until the fall, you’d be a great choice to help me get started. In fact, since I’m going to have to manage the whole place and I’d like to focus on the training and rehab of the horses, you would be great at handling volunteer coordination.”
“I’m not sure I understand.”
“Well, we’ll work together to create an orientation program for our new volunteers and then you can implement it. Don’t worry, it will be a team effort. In fact, with the stuff you’ve been teaching Brandon, he may be a good one to help you and Dylan too.”
“Me?” Dylan asked.
“Yeah, you’ve done the work with Dodger, so you’ll be able to tell volunteers what they can expect and give them idea of how difficult some of this might be,” Dusty explained. “We don’t want to discourage anyone from volunteering, but they also need to know that some of the horses coming in can be in really rough shape. We should include Ace, too. He’s got the experience working at a rescue too. I think the four of you would be a good team to coordinate the volunteers. Jesse, Mattie and I can focus on training.”
“What about Zak?” Diego asked.
Zak looked at his breakfast. “I’m banned,” he grumbled.
Dusty smirked. “He’s not banned. I don’t want him to work there. Zak has a tendency to fall in love with every horse he meets and I think working at the rescue will be too hard on him. The goal is to adopt the horses out to new homes and we can’t keep them all. When we have ones that we feel will be good lesson horses or trail horses, then Spin and Zak will work with them under Danny’s guidance to get them ready for that.”
Zak looked up and grinned. “When did we get that job?”
Danny smiled at his brother. “It was Dusty’s idea and I thought it would be good for the two of you. Erik might be a good one to help too, since he’s done so well with Rain.”
Dusty nodded. “That’s a great idea; I know he wants to help out.”
“You really want me to work there too?” Brandon asked. “I haven’t even ridden a horse yet.”
“A lot of the volunteers won’t have either,” Dusty explained. “Most of them won’t ever ride. They’ll need to know more about caring for the horses, feeding, grooming, cleaning stalls and so on than they will about riding and from what I’ve seen, Diego has taught you well there.”
Brandon smiled at the compliment.
The boys spent the morning washing and grooming their horses. Erik, TJ, Ace and Devon had joined them and everyone pitched in until there was something of a production line going on.
While the compound was off limits to most visitors, the boys had decided to set up in the new indoor arena. They had decided that they would space out in there around the wall so that they could interact with visitors and potential customers.
Zak and Angel, Spin and Revanche, Mattie and Ash, Diego and Domingo, Jesse and Val, and Dylan and Dodger would set up in the arena. Dusty also asked Erik if he would like to be there with Rain. Dusty wanted to show her off and knew that he had to be available for questions and to meet new volunteers. Ace, Devon and TJ would greet people at the two arena entrances and answer basic questions about the ranch and the rescue. CJ assigned Brandon to be a ‘gofer’, making sure the guys and the horses had water and cleaning up after the horses.
At noon, there was a huge crowd around the main barn, where a podium had been set up. There were camera crews from the local television stations and several reporters from the city and state newspapers.
CJ, Danny and Dusty stepped up onto the podium; the boys were all lined up behind them.
CJ stepped up to the microphone that had been placed in the center of the floor.
“Welcome, everyone,” he began. “For those of you who don’t know me, I’m CJ Alvarez and along with my partner, Danny James, I want to thank you all for coming to our grand re-opening today. When we purchased the Triple J Ranch last fall and the adjoining property, we knew we wanted to expand on what the ranch already meant to many folks in the area. We wanted a safe place for kids and families to come and enjoy. A place for them to learn about horses and enjoy them. We also decided that we would start a rescue program on the adjoining property. It’s sad that it’s necessary, but abuse and neglect for horses is on the rise. People think that owning a horse is ‘easy’ and don’t realize the cost and time needed for these animals. Part of our mission is going to be to educate people, to rescue these horses and to rehabilitate and then adopt them to families that have the time and the resources to care for them. As part of that mission, we decided to re-name the ranch to reflect our new mission. So welcome everyone to Second Chances Ranch and Rescue Center.”
The crowd erupted in applause as several hands uncovered the new signs with the logo designed by Devon.
“Thank you. The rescue is a non-profit entity and we will be accepting donations as well as looking for volunteers to help out. So if that is something you are interested in, please come speak to me, Danny or Dusty Crandall, who will be the manager of the rescue. If you are interested in lessons, trail rides or just learning more about what we offer, talk to any of the staff here--they are the people in the blue Ranch t-shirts. We’ll have people around for tours of the new facilities and there are pony rides for the kids. In the new indoor arena, some of our riders will be there so you can meet their horses and learn more about what we offer here. There is food and drink at several spots, so please enjoy yourselves.”
More applause came from the crowd. All the boys beamed at the response they were getting from the crowd.
As the crowd milled around the boys all went into the arena and took their places.
Normally, they would have been in riding clothes, but as CJ wanted everyone to be easily identifiable, they were all wearing jeans, boots and blue ‘Second Chances Ranch’ t-shirts.
Zak, Mattie, Spin, Dylan, Jesse, Diego and Erik were all scattered around the arena. They answered questions about their horses and riding experiences, introduced the horses and let people take pictures with them.
Ace, Devon and TJ were at the arena entrances answering questions, directing traffic and giving directions.
It wasn’t until after 6:30 that the last visitor left. The boys took their horses back to the private barn and groomed and fed them and then they all met at the main house.
Bridget had laid out a buffet type meal so they could all eat casually.
As all the boys sat around the dining room table eating, CJ, Danny and Dusty came in. They were all smiles.
“Great job, guys,” CJ said as he sat down. “We booked a lot of trail rides and lessons and signed up more volunteers for the rescue than we know what to do with. We also took in several thousand dollars in donations for the rescue.”
The boys all cheered for the success of the day.
“What are you going to do with all those volunteers?” Zak asked.
“Well, Monday, Dusty and Diego will start sorting through the list and contacting people who expressed interest. We figure we’ll lose 40-50 percent of them at that point. A lot of people get swept up in the moment and volunteer and then realize they don’t have the time,” CJ explained. “That’s why we’re glad we got such a large pool. Then, they’ll schedule them for training so that when we actually get the horses in we have people that are ready to help.”
It had been a long day and everyone was famished so for the next twenty minutes there was very little conversation.
“Hey, where were Steph and Luka today?” Dylan asked.
“They’re spending the weekend at their grandparents’; they were having a party for their fiftieth wedding anniversary,” Erik answered.
“When are they going to be back?” Danny asked.
“Probably late tomorrow night,” Erik said. “They have to be at school Monday and Steph and I are taking a trail ride that afternoon.”
“Erik, I thought you batted for our team,” Spin said.
Zak elbowed Spin in the ribs as Erik blushed.
“I do, Spin,” Erik stated. “She’s just a friend; we spent a lot of time together when you guys were gone.”
“What about Luka?” Spin asked.
“He’s ok,” Erik answered. “But, he gets a little intense.”
Dusty and CJ both nodded as they had both had encounters with Luka over Winston’s ‘needs’.
“Well, I have my first training session with him on Monday afternoon,” Danny said. “We’ll see how that goes.”
Zak winked at Dusty and grinned.
“What team were you guys talking about?” Brandon asked.
Several pairs of eyes shot lasers at Spin, who turned redder than usual.
“Brandon, most of us here are gay,” Diego explained. “As far as I know, the boys are out here and this is a safe place, but at school I am not sure.”
“School’s relatively safe,” Ace answered. “There’s safety in numbers, but most of the guys don’t flaunt it anyways.”
“Ace, you’re gay?” Brandon asked his eyes wide.
“Nope,” Ace answered. “As Zak says, I’m the ‘token’ straight guy.”
“But aren’t you afraid that people will think you’re gay if you’re hanging around with them?”
“I don’t care what other people think, Brand.” Ace said. “Devon has been my best friend since the first grade and I have always known something was different about him. I knew he was gay before I even knew what it was. But nothing changes the fact that he is my best and oldest friend and I would do anything for him. I would do anything for anyone at this table. I don’t care if he’s gay or straight. This is my family.”
“Wow,” Brandon exhaled as tears welled up in his eyes.
“Are you ok, my friend?” Diego asked.
Brandon looked around the room and grinned. “I’m better than ok,” he said. “I was afraid that it was just me, but knowing that you guys are like that too makes me even happier that I’ve met you all.”
Most of the boys spent Sunday catching up on homework and working around the ranch. There had been a couple of trail rides booked and Zak, Spin, Mattie and Ace took turns leading them out.
Monday morning, after the boys had all headed off to school, CJ and Danny were relaxing in bed. Diego was out in the barn doing chores and they were enjoying the empty house.
The phone rang and CJ leaned over to answer it.
“Hey, Sarge, what’s up?”
“You and Danny need to put your TV on channel 13.”
“The Fox station, why would we do that?
“There’s a story coming up you need to see.”
“Ok. We’ll check it out.”
“Call me back after,” Sarge said as he hung up.
“What was that about?” Danny asked.
CJ shook his head. “I have no idea. Hand me the remote will you?”
Danny gave CJ the remote control and CJ turned the television on and tuned it to channel 13.
“After this break, hear about the opening a new business here in town…one that may not be what it seems…” the announcer said as the picture switched to a commercial.
“Why are we watching this station?” Danny asked.
“Sarge said there was something coming up we needed to see.”
“Well, it better be quick, these guys give me the creeps.”
They waited for the commercials to end and watched as the picture changed to an older man sitting behind a large desk.
“Welcome back to ‘Wake Up, World,’” the man said. “Next we have Cindy Archer with a story about the re-opening of a local business.”
The picture changed to one of the ranch and over the picture came the voice of a young woman.
“Last fall, the Triple J Ranch, which has been a staple in the community for many years, was sold by the owner, Martin Jones, to two young men, Carlos Alvarez, Jr. and Daniel James. Over the weekend, the two men held a grand re-opening for the ranch, renaming it ‘Second Chances Ranch and Horse Rescue’.”
Pictures of the ranch and the festivities were played as the report continued, “They declared their purpose in expanding the ranch was to increase the services they offered to the community, but we have learned that the plans of these young men are much more nefarious. It is no secret that these two young men are a homosexual couple and they appear to have surrounded themselves with a group of wayward and confused young men. There have been rumors of untoward activities going on at the ranch. We have also learned that the ranch earlier this year offered safe haven to a young man who has since been incarcerated for the rapes of multiple young men.” A picture of Dylan and Jesse flashed on the screen. “Including one Dylan Summers, who seems to have fallen under Mr. Alvarez’ and Mr. James’ spell. Channel 13 will continue to investigate this possible danger to the town’s youths. Cindy Archer reporting.”
CJ angrily turned off the television and threw the remote across the room.
“That bitch!!” he raged as he jumped out of the bed. “Not only do they make up lies about us, but they plaster Dylan’s picture all over the TV!!”
“CJ, you have to calm down,” Danny said as he put his hand on CJ’s shoulder. “We’ll call Sarge and the lawyers and figure out what to do.”
“Hopefully, no one at the high school has seen this,” CJ said. “I can only imagine what might happen to one of the kids.”
Spin walked quickly down the sidewalk. He had an early dentist appointment. His mom had dropped him off, but since his dentist was a five minute walk from school, he was fine to get there on his own.
He decided to cut across the football field. There shouldn’t be anyone out there at this hour and he would make better time.
He was halfway across the field when he heard footsteps behind him.
He was about to turn to see if someone was there when he was grabbed from behind.
“We don’t want no fags here!!” he heard a gruff voice say in his ear.
Before he could say anything, he felt a sack of some type pulled over his head. Then he felt the first blow. He felt a rib give--the pain was incredible. He lost count of how many times he was hit. When the blows finally stopped he thought it was over. Then he felt something sharp rip into his side. He felt hot wetness flow from the spot. Finally, the arms that held him let go. He tried to cry out, but the pain overwhelmed him and he slumped to the ground.